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With Early Voting A Month Away, Battles Persist Over Mail-In Ballots And Drop Boxes

The early voting center at the Franklin County Board of Elections in Columbus.
John Minchillo
Associated Press
The early voting center at the Franklin County Board of Elections in Columbus.

This is the first of two-part series on Ohio's absentee voting system. Read part two here.

Ohio voters who want to mail in their ballots might be wary when they learn about recent changes made by the U.S. Postal Service, or when they read President Trump’s Twitter feed. But Ohio’s election system has some checks and balances that protect mail-in voters.

After reports that, as part of cost-saving measures, the U.S. Postal Service was taking apart mail sorting machines and removing mailboxes, U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy was called to a Congressional hearing.

"Senator, I promise you, we are not making any more changes until after the election," DeJoy vowed to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.)

Recently, DeJoy sent letters to election leaders around the country, saying those changes could make it impossible to deliver ballots on time.

All of this has raised questions with members of Congress, who are now investigating DeJoy's actions at the USPS. Columbus, Cincinnati and Dayton have joined dozens of other local governments in suing to stop the changes, arguing they pose a greater hurdle for people exercising their right to vote.

Those developments, coupled with President Trump's unfounded claims that mail-in ballots could be a vehicle for voter fraud, has made some voters question whether the option is safe.   

The head of Ohio’s elections system says they shouldn’t worry. Secretary of State Frank LaRose got DeJoy's letter, and says there are many safeguards built into the state's system that protect voters who cast ballots by mail.  

“In Ohio, it’s a great way to vote," LaRose says. "You can track your ballot so you know it is safely received back at the board of elections.”  

Ohioans can register to vote until October 5, and early voting begins the next day. Voters can request absentee ballots until October 31, and the Secretary of State's website offers a tool to track the status of those applications and ballots.

Election officials and voting rights advocates have been urging voters to request and submit their ballots as soon as possible, to avoid any possible Postal Service delays. Mail-in ballots must be postmarked by November 2, the day before Election Day, to count.

LaRose, a Republican, has come under fire from Democrats and some voting rights advocates for not installing more ballot boxes where voters can put their completed ballots, circumventing the postal system altogether. Under LaRose's directive, counties can only install one ballot drop box, at the county board of elections building, which is rarely centrally located or easy to access without a car.

LaRose says he doesn’t have the legal authority to allow more drop boxes without legislative approval.

Ohio Democratic Party chair David Pepper thinks LaRose does have that ability, however, and the party has filed a lawsuit to allow election boards to set up more than one box.

Then the Phillip A. Randolph Institute, League of Women Voters, Ohio NAACP filed their own lawsuit over ballot drop boxes, arguing that LaRose's directive "substantially burdens" Ohioans' right to vote by forcing them to choose between risking their health to vote in person, or risking their ballot not being counted due to USPS delays.

"The Directive further unlawfully favors voters in counties smaller in population over those counties larger in population, in violation of equal protection of the law," the lawsuit continues. "While the Directive substantially burdens all Ohioans, that burden is greater for those who live in more populated counties because only one drop box is available per hundreds of thousands of registered voters in the county."

Pepper has also gone a step forward and filed complaints with some county prosecutors, asking them to pursue felony charges against President Trump over his comments that he opposed Postal Service funding in order to prevent voting by mail.

"If we don't make a deal, that means they don't get the money," Trump last month said about the Congressional coronavirus relief measure. "That means they can't have universal mail-in voting. They just can't have it."

“For Donald Trump to admit last week that his goal in what he is doing in the post office is to hurt the delivery of absentee ballots," Pepper argues, "he literally just admitted to breaking the law in the state of Ohio."

Steve Huefner, an elections law professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, says it's hard to prove that Trump is breaking election laws.

“It would be a hard case for a prosecutor to make at this point, to show that President Trump and all of the statements he’s been making about problems with mail-in voting and other things that he has said that relate to that, to say that he was knowingly doing it to hinder the delivery of an absent voter’s ballot," Huefner says.

None of the Ohio prosecutors who were asked to look at Pepper’s complaint have filed charges at this point. However, at least 20 Democratic attorneys general throughout the country have sued the Trump administration over the Postal Service changes. 

Jo Ingles is a professional journalist who covers politics and Ohio government for the Ohio Public Radio and Television for the Ohio Public Radio and Television Statehouse News Bureau. She reports on issues of importance to Ohioans including education, legislation, politics, and life and death issues such as capital punishment.